A Moment for Moderates

If pluralism and radical Islam have a future, stronger voices of tolerance are needed

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Moises Saman / Magnum for TIME

Protesters throw rocks at Egyptian security forces protecting the area near the U.S. embassy in Cairo on Sept. 14.

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Consider Egypt's President, Mohamed Morsy, who initially condemned just the movie and only later, after President Obama called him, the violence as well. Morsy is a radical who has spouted nasty conspiracy theories about the U.S. He won the presidency narrowly, largely because Egypt's secular and moderate vote split among several candidates. So he is pandering to his base while trying to act with some degree of responsibility as President. In other words, he's behaving like an elected politician. And that is good news of sorts.

Both the symbolism and substance matter. When al-Qaeda urges violence--as it did--the man responding is increasingly neither a military dictator nor a tribal prince but an elected leader. In Egypt, he is the leader of the region's most powerful Islamic political movement. The latter is likely to be far more persuasive in making Egyptians--and Muslims everywhere--understand that tolerance must become a core Islamic value in the modern world.

Complicating this picture is timing: these protests have come at a crucial moment in the Middle East. The Arab Spring of 2011 has been followed by economic collapse, political dysfunction and, in many places, the rise of political Islam. In hard times, it is easy to fan the flames of hatred and intolerance. But it is precisely in these hard times that modernity and freedom need to be promoted and defended. And they must be defended by those who have gained the most from democracy: the Islamic political parties. Freedom of speech has meant that members of Islamist parties in places like Egypt and Tunisia can finally express themselves without fear of being killed. Will they now offer those same protections to others?

Few in the Arab world are defending the kind of largely unalloyed freedom of speech with the vigor of those in the West. But it is important to remember that it took the West a long time to embrace broad freedom of expression, especially when it involved attacks on core religious beliefs and symbols. Blasphemy was severely punished even in Britain--thought to be the most liberal country in Europe--in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Even in the U.S., public tolerance for attacks on religion was low until recently. In their recent book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert Putnam and David Campbell write, "In round numbers ... about two-thirds of [American] churchgoers who came of age before 1945 rejected free expression for antireligious views, whereas about two-thirds of churchgoers who came of age after 1965 tolerate such views." Egyptians are debating their new constitution, and many parties are advocating the adoption of blasphemy laws. If this is the path Egypt follows, it will be a blow to the country's progress and a setback for the already-too-slow modernization of Islam. Muslim countries need more tolerance, not less.

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